Lying Toddler: Should you be worried?

Every parent remembers the very first time they caught their little one in a lie. While its often quite amusing and funny, parents are often left worrying whether they should be concerned or not.

We have good news for you!

By the age of four, lying seems to be incredibly common in young children and is considered, to the dismay of many, a normal component of a child’s development. Although it shouldn’t be encouraged, it shouldn’t be condemned and it should most definitely not be a reason for punishment.

Children of younger ages, between the ages of two to three, are able to tell “primary lies” which are usually told to cover up something they’ve done, rather than “secondary lies”, which entail an active understanding of the recipient’s thoughts and mental state, and an intention to deceive. Children begin to tell “secondary lies” around the age of four, a time in which a child’s “theory of mind” usually develops. This is the capacity a child has to attribute mental states to himself and others. An important component of which, is understanding that “what I think, can be different to what other people think” and vice versa. In order to convincingly lie, a child needs to be able to self-control aspects of their speech and way of expression.

 As it turns out, children with a better developed theory of mind and inhibitory control (self-control) tell better lies. So it seems that lying is very much related to a child’s intelligence and creativity, since both of the above-mentioned functions are related to these qualities.  So although we wouldn’t want to encourage our children to lie, we should recognize that it’s an outcome of their progressive cognitive development.

Some researchers, go as far as to prompt parents to celebrate their children’s first lies, as it is an indicative marker of healthy development which will serve as a benchmark for future social interactions. 

For young children the differentiation between truth and fiction is unclear at times, as opposed to older children who can balance multiple realities in their head- a skill necessary in story-telling, but also, lying. By understanding the underlying emergent skills of their child, parents can find positive aspects in what initially looks as a problematic behavior. Imagination, is after all, a central part of childhood development, linked directly to creativity and successful problem solving skills. Of course, it might be a good idea for parents to discuss that although tale-telling is part of the joy of being a kid, there are times where it’s appropriate and times where it’s not.

It’s very common for children when they are stressed and feel helpless in handling a situation to resort to lying. To avoid this, focus on providing your child, with alternative appropriate skill-sets to deal with difficult situations. This way resorting to lying will not be their only solution. Still, it’s important to remember, that a child is not born with an inherent moral compass, but rather develops it with experience and age. Discuss with your child the value of honesty and how it fosters and nourishes relationships.

A great way of guiding your child to discover alternative skills is by setting an example for them by modelling integrity and honesty. Children are constantly watching adults to see how they are expected to handle a situation, so make sure you practice what you preach!

Finally, think twice before resorting to punishment as the solution to a lying toddler. It’s more likely that it will have a boomerang effect which will breed more lies instead of a positive impact on your child.


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